Reviews: Another Three-Pack

The movies have arrived fast and furious here in the heart of awards season, so we’ve got a lot to catch up on and more yet to come. Time to cross a few off the list with another round of not-quite-full reviews, this go-around generally centered on a trio of terrific actors.

Inside Llewyn Davis

A mish-mash of the Coen brothers’ favorite themes and devices, “Inside Llewyn Davis” doesn’t so much surprise as ingratiate; much like its eponymous protagonist, this is a film that wheedles its way into your heart, inviting you to fall prey to a cycle of failure and absurdity of tragicomic proportions against all better judgment. Borrowing the floundering artist of “Barton Fink,” the Job-esque confluence of fate of “A Serious Man,” and the musical Odyssey structure of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” the Coens have arranged and rearranged and arrived with yet another gem. Superbly crafted, as one would expect, “Inside Llewyn Davis” really sets itself part in the Coens’ body of work thanks to an indelible lead and the exceptional performance behind him.

There have been an awful lot of films (of supremely varying quality) on the ineffability of creative genius, but perhaps only a team as perverse as the Coen brothers would be so fascinated by the stagnation of near-genius. Flitting from couch to couch by day and cafe to cafe by night, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is just one of any number of itinerant musicians trying to make his way in the crowded folk music scene of 1960’s New York. Once part of an up-and-coming duo, Davis is struggling as a solo act: his new album has made nary a dent, he may have gotten his best friend’s girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) pregnant, and to top things off he’s been saddled with an orange tabby that, like all cats, seems hell bent on inconveniencing his every move. But where Davis separates himself from previously star-crossed Coen characters like Larry Gopnik or Barton Fink is that Davis may entirely deserve his kharmic gauntlet.

Brutally sarcastic and detached, Davis seems set on setting himself back even in the few moments that divine intervention isn’t doing it for him. It’s thanks to Isaac’s charismatic, finely balanced turn that we can still see the value in, and even root for, such an embittered, misanthropic man. There are points you desperately wish he would act differently, but you can always glean the deep-seeded pain and frustration in Davis’ eyes, or, more importantly, in his music. Davis is not Barton Fink, a blue-collar pretender whose intense writer’s block stemmed at least partly from his feigned worldliness; his art comes from somewhere deeply personal, its expression compulsory. As Isaac himself aptly put it in an interview with NPR, “Life is squeezing [Davis], and these are the sounds he’s making.”

The film wanders with no particular narrative, holding even more loosely to its Homeric framework than the already rather liberated “O Brother” (although one particular, ill-advised joke hammers home the allusion too hard). John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund arrive halfway through the film for an appropriately eerie descent into the underworld, manifested here as a famed nightclub in Chicago. There the “Inside Llewyn Davis” version of Hades, a gruff, on-point F. Murray Abraham, delivers perhaps the most devastating line of dialogue of the year; and so Davis is sentenced to return back to where he started, forced the confront the dingy back-alleys and endless doldrums that are his home.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars


If there’s been something missing from Alexander Payne’s road-trip films up to this point (“About Schmidt,” “Sideways”) it’s perhaps an appropriate sense of weariness, of the physical and mental exhaustion that results from crossing mile after mile of black-top highway. The writer-director’s wit and nimble direction always keeps things relatively light, even when addressing the most strained emotions. “Nebraska” is far from glum, but its confluence of casting, setting and style gives its central family a lived-in, worn-out feel that resonates more genuinely than some of Payne’s past characters.

Traversing a stark Midwestern landscape that would probably exist in black-and-white even if Phedon Papamichael hadn’t shot it that way, David Grant (Will Forte) and his father Woody (Bruce Dern) are on a fool’s errand. Woody, a doddering alcoholic two shuffles short of senility, has received one of those “You may have already won $1 million” mail scams I thought had long since gone the way of Nigerian royalty, and is determined to trek from his home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings, even if he has to walk there. As travel plans go, this makes “The Straight Story” look like Expedia, so David resignedly agrees to drive his father the distance. It’s partly an act of kindness towards the confused old man, but David has plenty of his own reasons for making the journey: the opportunity to spend some his time with his long-distant father, perhaps, and if nothing else to get out of town for a weekend and away from his ex-girlfriend who has just moved out of the apartment.

This is prime episodic road-trip fodder, but Lincoln gets sidetracked as David and Woody stop on the way for an impromptu family reunion in Woody’s old hometown of Hawthorne, a tiny Nebraska backwater mostly unchanged since World War II. As David encounters some of Woody’s old family, friends, and, in a particularly poignant scene, lovers, “Nebraska” becomes an expertly crafted study of small-town dynamics. In a place like Hawthorne, everyone knows everything about everyone else, and the gossip that “Woody Grant’s a millionaire” spreads like wildfire, creating unexpected tensions with opportunistic relatives and Woody’s former business partner (a gruff and suitably domineering Stacy Keach).

Placed in this unforgiving setting, the film provides a sharp and melancholic contrast between delusions and dreams on the one hand, and harsher reality on the other. Nostalgia and memory interweave, providing Woody and David with a glimpse of both pain and happiness gone by. David has generally viewed his father’s absenteeism and drinking problem, not unfairly, with disdain; in these reflections of Woody’s past, we are given a more complicated picture, of a fundamentally decent man troubled by regrets he may never be able to articulate.

Woody’s inability to voice his fears and frustrations makes him quite a match for his wife Kate (June Squibb), a no-nonsense live wire that acts as the film’s truth-teller. The scenes between the two of them are a kind of perfection of character you could only get from two performers who have spent their long, long careers away from the top billing: Squibb, matter-of-fact in a manner that conveys resignation rather than petulance, and Dern, slouched and slumped but with infinitely sad, restless eyes, make you believe in every one of the many years that have passed between the two. Forte, along with Bob Odenkirk as David’s brother Ross, fills out the unit in convincing fashion. Suitably enough, it’s this family that, even amongst Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson’s humorous asides on Midwestern culture, gives “Nebraska” a sense of purpose.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

The Wolf of Wall Street

It’s a mystery to me that, after all these years and acceptance into the cinematic canon, Martin Scorsese apparently still has the ability to brew up so much trouble. All the more power to him – at age 71, he yet has the sharp wit and exuberant style that made his name in the 70s. “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a sort of spiritual successor to “GoodFellas” in the director’s “epic of bad behavior” sub-genre, is Scorsese’s freshest, most wickedly funny film in some time, and with that brash attitude there was bound to be some misguided backlash.

While “GoodFellas” charted the rise and fall of Henry Hill, a working-class mafioso who got his hands extremely dirty scrabbling his way to the high life, “The Wolf of Wall Street” trains Scorsese’s sights on white-collar crime: the Financial District fat cats that find excess and luxury while barely so much as lifting a finger. The film’s real-life anti-hero, Jordan Belfort (played here by an energized Leonardo DiCaprio), was your typical bright-eyed young business major, who quickly descended into a life of hard partying when he discovered just how easy stock swindling could be for a motor-mouthed charmer such as himself. Along with his partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a cadre of sleazebag salesmen, Belfort took his upstart brokerage firm to heights of decadence heretofore imagined only by the likes of Caligula.

Much of the film’s grand three-hour running time is dedicated to these Wall Street bacchanalias, and one does wonder if this second act couldn’t have been trimmed down a bit for structure’s sake – by the time we reach Jordan’s gradual, inevitable tumble from Olympus, the handcuffs feel long overdue. But then, that is perhaps the point; Scorsese has come under fire for reveling too much in the wacky, drug-infused antics of fundamentally despicable people, as if we, the audience, weren’t laughing along every step of the way. The director is unapologetic in his depiction of Belfort’s selfish, destructive behavior, and why should he be: his firm’s fortune was made, for the most part, on the backs of others who aspired to the same lifestyle. Can we just not handle the idea that we too, should be criticized for helping create the system that produces the Jordan Belforts of the world?

There are elements of “The Wolf of Wall Street” that remain problematic. Depicting misogyny without participating in it has been a stumbling block for even the greatest filmmakers, and Scorsese can not really be excused here. “GoodFellas” nimbly handled the issue by its clever and unexpected hand-off of narration to Hill’s wife, Karen; neither Belfort’s aggrieved first wife Teresa (Cristin Miloti) nor his mistress and trophy Naomi (Margot Robbie) are afforded a similar opportunity. That Scorsese follows a particularly revolting scene of Jordan assaulting Naomi with a more ambiguously sympathetic scene of Belfort trying to protect his best friend, is troublesome.

Still, it has been a while since Scorsese created something that felt so dangerous and debatable, or had such singular stand-out elements. DiCaprio in particular gives one of, if not the best performance of his career, finally worthy of comparison to De Niro’s signature collaborations with the director. His physical dedication to bits both comedic and depraved (or a combination of both) is total. DiCaprio has grown more and more adventurous over the past decade, and it’s paid off in one of his most indelible characters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Do You Hear What I Hear?

And so here we are, on the morning after – well, not quite. It was only earlier (much, much earlier, if you live on the West Coast) today that the Oscar nominations were announced, although the current state of entertainment news and blogging means that by now you’ve probably read at least a minimum of five lists of the biggest “snubs” and two lengthy analyses of why, exactly, the Academy Awards don’t really matter. Or do. Or are racist. A combination of all of the above, most likely.

As someone who generally views awards-watching as an outlet, more akin to a crossword puzzle hobby than a platform for analyzing cultural trends, I find myself increasingly less interested in the latter. The Oscars are what they are, a reflection of the industry rather than the heart of it. Change Hollywood and you’ll change the awards, not the other way around. In the meantime, let’s have some fun scratching our heads over this altogether peculiar group and their choices for the best of the past year in film.

And really, what a maddeningly unpredictable slate when you get right down to it. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the pure number of contenders this time around; while there was very little revealed this morning that was shocking, there were any number of small surprises, both good and bad, depending on your point of view. Despite agonizing for many hours (and making some last-minute changes that I quite regret in hindsight), I couldn’t do much better in my predictions than three or four out of five in each category; Best Adapted Screenplay was the only one I nailed outright, although I’m rather pleased with going eight for nine in Best Picture.

My only mistake in that category was in my choice of which middlebrow piece would find the hearts of (most likely older) voters. While the Academy turned out to want none of the sentimentalized inside baseball of “Saving Mr. Banks” – rejecting not only the film itself but even, surprisingly, Emma Thompson’s acclaimed lead performance as “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers – they embraced Stephen Frears’ “Philomena,” giving it not only a Best Picture slot but a Screenplay nod for star Steve Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope as well. I’m kicking myself, first because I had a hunch about the film for most of the season and only recently wavered, and second because I actually rather enjoyed the movie myself and it’s not the kind of film that usually ends up in my wheelhouse; a sure sign it would definitely register with the eager British bloc, then.

A greater personal disappointment was that my last-minute sinking feeling that “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which got mostly shut out on the guild circuit, wasn’t going to register was indeed borne out, in fairly brutal fashion. I prepared myself for the eventuality that passion votes for “Her” might take away some crucial support for the Coens’ latest in Best Picture, but not even a consolatory screenplay nomination? That hurts, and I think the Oscars will end up on the wrong side of history with that one. The other really stinging snub was of Sarah Polley’s remarkable “Stories We Tell” in Best Documentary Feature; granted, I haven’t seen all of the nominees in that category, but I have a hard time imagining Polley’s devastatingly personal film not beating out any of them. We’ll always have the EMOs, Sarah.

In terms of personal (or is it pyrrhic?) victories, though, there were certainly some. The Best Picture recognition for “Her” is richly deserved, and I had hoped/thought that Spike Jonze could even garner enough support for his unique, subtle work to slide into the Best Director slate. As it happened, that spot went instead to Alexander Payne, whose “Nebraska” I also greatly admired (more thoughts on several of these films coming soon, but I thought Payne’s work here far superior and more coherent than the inconsistent “The Descendants”). Payne also edged out Paul Greengrass, whose work on “Captain Phillips” earned a Director’s Guild nomination, but always seemed more respected than adored this season.

That attitude extended for “Phillips” through the rest of the nominations as well. While newcomer Barkhad Abdi pulled out a Best Supporting Actor nod for his wiry, intense performance as a Somali pirate captain, Tom Hanks unexpectedly missed in the lead category. Considering he at one point seemed destined for a double nomination, a goose egg for Hanks has got to be a disappointing end to the season. The severely over-crowded Best Actor race was always going to be the place to look for surprises, and indeed there were a couple. Late-season-bloomers Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale both crashed the party, pushing vets Hanks and Redford out of the picture. DiCaprio’s all-in performance is assuredly one of my favorites of the year, so his presence was another bright spot for me – in what suddenly seems a wide-open race, he might even have a shot at the win (McConaughey didn’t overly impress with his cut-off Golden Globes speech).

Bale’s nomination, along with Amy Adams pushing out Thompson in Best Actress, meant that the predictably popular “American Hustle” moves on with a nomination in all four acting categories – an astounding feat when you consider that makes two years in a row that David O. Russell has accomplished that for his cast (before “Silver Linings Playbook,” no one had done it for about 40 years). Once a highly unpopular director due to on-set fights with the likes of George Clooney and Lily Tomlin, Russell’s going to have actors beating down his door now.

Riding that love from the actor’s branch, “Hustle” tied for the field lead with “Gravity” at ten total nominations; “12 Years a Slave” right behind with nine. Those are your three contenders for the moment, and it’s really anybody’s game that I can see. Keep an eye out on the guild awards for the next month, and pay attention to the craft category victors early on Oscar night for signs of where we’ll be headed at the big finish.

A few final, random thoughts:

  • The most surprising snub of the day may have Sean Bobbitt’s exquisite cinematography for “12 Years a Slave.” Philippe Le Sourd and Phedon Papamichael both did great work as well on “The Grandmaster” and “Nebraska,” respectively, but that’s a wallop to Fox Searchlight’s campaign for McQueen’s film.
  • The masterful Roger Deakins, meanwhile, will get to lose that category yet again as the sole nominee for Denis Villeneuve”s thriller “Prisoners” (Deakins is 0 for 10 lifetime at the Oscars).
  • Deakins’ peer in futility, composer Thomas Newman (0 for 11 so far), also managed to be his film’s only nominee, for the original score of “Saving Mr. Banks.”
  • Indie animation distributor GKIDS worked its magic again to bring French charmer “Ernest and Celestine” into the fold. Particularly impressive considering it appears to have pushed out Pixar’s rote “Monsters University” (now only the studio’s second film, after “Cars 2,” to miss a nomination in Animated Feature).
  • Sally Hawkins earned her first-ever Oscar nod for her supporting turn in “Blue Jasmine.” Nice try, Academy, but it still doesn’t make up for ignoring her in “Happy-Go-Lucky.”
  • Jonah Hill is now a two-time Oscar nominee, and it’s not even really egregious. Try to figure that one out.
  • The “Jackass” franchise is now Oscar-nominated, and it also kind of makes sense. What is happening?
  • John Williams earned his 49th nomination for Original Score, because John Williams wrote something this year. Did anyone even SEE “The Book Thief?”
  • Speaking of not seeing things, this year’s winner for Best Original Song Nominee That Sends Everyone Scrambling to IMDB to Find a Movie You’re Pretty Sure Chris Hemsworth Just Made Up is “Alone Yet Not Alone” from “Alone Yet Not Alone” (no I still don’t know what it is, don’t ask me).
  • Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures became only the fourth producer ever to earn double nod in the same year, for “American Hustle” and “Her.” In the past two years, she’s carried five films to a total of twenty-four total nominations. Watch out, Hollywood.